Grappa, the Italian spirit made from grape pomace, has a chequered history. The grappa that arrived on the shores of the UK was, for many years, an industrial product that often lacked the nuance and elegance of the finest grappa. Spirits lovers in the UK and across the world struggled to find an appreciation for these distilled grape skins. In recent years, however, a group of committed distilleries has been overseeing a resurgence in the quality and reputation of grappa. The Buyer’s Mike Turner recently visited one such distillery, Marolo in Piemonte, to discover its vision on how to make a truly great grappa.
“It’s really important for us to be close to the vineyards,” explains Lorenzo Marolo. “We’re not looking to produce a heartless, soulness, tasteless industrial product. We’re trying, just like the winemakers, to bottle the aromas and personalities of every vintage.”
For many years I felt the same about grappa that I’m sure many of you do too. Why on earth is this stuff being bottled and sold? My first encounter was a Grappa di Moscato that had been homebrewed by an old-school grape grower from the Langhe region, and it nearly blew my head clean off! When attempting to buy a couple of bottles from local supermarkets in Piemonte to see if I was missing something, the effect was much the same. I assumed I had missed the point of this drink completely and I wasn’t too distressed to rectify that.
That was until a friend gave me a little case of miniatures from a distillery called Marolo. This friend was flying home from Piemonte, couldn’t get them on the plane, and decided to donate them to me, possibly to keep me warm in the cold winter evenings of a Piemontese October. Full of trepidation but shaking like a leaf, despite the three pairs of socks, I braved the first one…and it tasted bloody good! A Grappa di Moscato that smelled and tasted of orange blossom, apples, grapes, sage and pepper. You could actually taste it was Moscato. I tried the next one, a Nebbiolo, and sure enough the same response. My ‘road to Grappa-Damascus’ had arrived!
On a recent trip to Piemonte I finally had the chance to meet the team responsible for this epiphany. I travelled to Alba to meet Lorenzo Marolo, the man who is setting the standards at one of Italy’s finest grappa producers.
We need to talk about grappa
Grappa has, to put it kindly, a difficult reputation. That’s not just in the UK, that’s in Italy too. There are few people I know, even in Piemonte, that didn’t previously wince at the thought of cracking open a bottle of grappa. You would see it being ordered occasionally in bars by old men alongside their morning espresso as a caffè corretto before heading back out to the fields for the afternoon.
The problem is a weird one. Historically grappa was seen as a way to make a little something extra out of what is otherwise seen as a waste product. This isn’t brandy. It isn’t a spirit made from a dedicated wine produced solely for that purpose. Instead, the raw material is the grape pomace that is removed post-pressing, either before or after fermentation, in wine production. Winemakers could either ship the pomace off in bulk to the larger distilleries to produce official (i.e. fully taxed) grappa, or occasionally a few would produce a bit of their own moonshine.
The larger distillers were making an industrial product. Rightly or wrongly, the way the margins and the business worked, it became a rack ‘em and stack ‘em market and that was the only grappa to be exported for many years. On the moonshine side of things, those of you who know a lot more than me about distillation will know that it’s a fair old skill to know which ‘cuts’ to keep and which to discard, and rarely do the moonshine grappas you’re ‘lucky’ enough to be offered equate to anything other than rocket fuel. For many years it simply wasn’t taken all that seriously.
The visionary school teacher in need of a good drink
Marolo was founded in 1977 by Paolo Marolo, a teacher at Alba’s Oenological School. He was also chair of the department of Herbal Medicine, created by the famous pharmacist and painter Pinot Gallizio, where students were encouraged to play with botanicals and attempt to replicate recipes such as Campari. Marolo’s vision was to harness the increasingly impressive wines of the Langhe (this was around the same time Barolo was finally being dragged kicking and screaming into the future) whilst promoting this historic distillate.
Varietal grappa had existed on farms for many years, but rarely on a commercial scale. Why couldn’t you do that? Or why couldn’t you make region-specific grappa? Or even single vineyard grappa? Paolo’s vision was timed perfectly with what was happening in the vineyards around him and now son Lorenzo continues that mission.
Marolo now produces grappa using pomace from the Piemontese regions of Langhe, Monferrato and Roero. That takes in pretty much the whole of the main grape growing regions of Piemonte and has allowed the distillery to compile an impressive portfolio. That portfolio includes grappa using Arneis from its heartland of Roero, Moscato and Brachetto from Langhe, and Barbera from Monferrato. It also includes the famed Piemontese vineyards of Barolo and Barbaresco as well as other Italian regions such as Brunello, Amarone and even Gewürztraminer from Cantina Tramin in Alto Adige.
The modern distillery now sits on the outskirts of Alba, that most famous of truffle towns, only a stone’s throw from the prestigious vineyards of Barolo. “It’s really important for us to be close to the vineyards,” explained Marolo. “We’re not looking to produce a heartless, soulness, tasteless industrial product. We’re trying, just like the winemakers, to bottle the aromas and personalities of every vintage.”
What makes Marolo different?
“To make a great espresso,” began Marolo when we first entered the distillery, “you need great coffee, a great coffee machine and a great barista.” It’s that thought process that sets Marolo apart from many other grappa distillers around.
It all starts with the raw material, the grape pomace itself. Marolo source their pomace from some of the finest winemakers around. It’s carefully selected in unison with the wine producers to make sure that pomace only arrives if it was good enough for the best wines – being clean and full of aromatics. The speed at which the pomace is processed is also key.
“It gets pretty busy around here from September until around Christmas time,” remarked Marolo. “We never store the pomace, we need it fresh to protect and then extract those lovely aromatics, so we get it in and we distil it, with everything happening within 90 days at most. The goal is not the alcohol, the goal is the flavour.”
The team use small, albeit time-consuming stills, in order to produce the desired quality of product. We take it for granted in these days of ‘artisan’ gin producers that every spirit round the world now has a niche edge to counteract its industrialised recent past. But Marolo finds itself in limited company in its quest to make high class grappa.
“It’s not the easiest business to be involved in,” admits Marolo pondering why so few niche grappa producers exist. “It can be very tricky when it comes to the tax authorities especially. There are so many rules we have to adhere to that I have more people working in the office on paperwork than I do in the distillery!”
Marolo’s use of small ‘bain marie’ heated stills allow for the protection of the delicate flavours of each grape variety. Although it takes much longer, it answers to the company ethos of creating delicate grappa. Now approaching their half century as a business, the master distillers at the company know just how to handle the ensuing vapours, correcting the imperfections to make the perfect spirit.
The team at Marolo does create grappa with age, in a variety of barrels from all over the world, but it cannot detract from the company ethos. “Any use of oak or ageing vessel needs to add to what we’re trying to do,” mused Marolo. “You don’t need to age a grappa for it to taste good. Moscato should be floral and fruity, don’t mask it with ageing.”
Regional classics and historical recipes
Following on from resurrecting one famous drink, the team at Marolo has also begun producing what used to be arguably the most famous export from these parts, Torino Vermouth. Father Paolo’s previous experience as the chair of herbal medicine saw a keen love of all things vermouth and amaro. Marolo has resurrected the Dottore Domenico Ulrich brand, first producing and selling amaro and vermouth in 1854 through Dr Ulrich’s pharmacy.
“These drinks were seen as medicinal for centuries and it was normal for pharmacists to invent their own recipes,” explained Marolo. “Although the Dr Ulrich brand includes pharmaceutical products and is now owned by a large Italian pharmaceutical company called Paladin Pharma, they’ve allowed us to recreate these historic drinks for our clients.”
Vermouth from Torino, for so long dominated by the Martini juggernaut, has been a mainstay of most cocktail bars across the world thanks to being one of the key ingredients in a Negroni.
“Everyone agrees that Vermouth Rosso was invented in Torino. It’s a melting pot of ingredients going up the salt road from the Mediterranean,” continued Marolo. “We wanted to show people there is more to Torino Vermouth than just one set of flavours. If you want a Negroni, why not make it special with a truly high-class Vermouth.”
Great Grappas to try from Marolo
Grappa di Arneis
From Arneis grown on the grape’s very own heartlands of the Roero hills. The first thing that hits you on the nose is the delicate floral balance with pears and orange zest. On the taste it’s just as subtle, with warming but not burning alcohol, and a creamy texture that gives way to a floral after taste.
Grappa di Gewürztraminer
Grapes from the Italian legends of the grape of Cantina Tramin in Alto Adige. So much complexity on the nose with pears, oranges, jasmine, ginger and rose petal. Once again the soft mouthfeel is dominated by floral notes as well as the tangy ginger spice on the finish.
Grappa di Moscato Après
Specially picked selection of Grappa di Moscato that is then aged in barrels imported from Sicily that had been used to age Zibibbo grapes on the island of Pantelleria. The five year ageing process hasn’t masked the floral and fruity notes of the Moscato, but added raisined notes and dried citrus peel. A fabulous pairing with panetone.
Grappa di Barolo Brunate 2016
A true vintage product from the La Morra MGA of Brunate, one of the ‘Grand Crus’ of Barolo. The grappa is fruity, rose perfumed, earthy in texture with a super long, velvet textured finish, a really class product.
Domenico Ulrich Vermouth Rosso
Based faithfully on the 1854 recipe, this Vermouth uses a base of Cortese (a white grape) and is coloured by the use of burned golden sugar instead of today’s common practice of using caramel colouring. The rest of the botanicals including orange peel, gentian and lemon balm are natural and organic and come from the area surrounding Torino. A gentle, textured vermouth that switches from being sweet to bitter in perfect balance. I loved it. So much so I’m drinking one as I finish this piece!
Marolo is imported into the UK by Amathus Drinks. For more information about Distilleria Marolo or their products, please contact Sara Frau at WellCom on firstname.lastname@example.org
Mike Turner is a freelance writer, presenter, educator, judge and regular contributor for The Buyer through his editorial company Please Bring Me My Wine. He also runs a wine events and ecommerce business, Feel Good Grapes, that explores and discusses the idea of sustainability in the wine trade.